After the Gold Rush: Contemporary Photographs from the Collection @Met

JTF (just the facts): A group show consisting of 25 photographic works from 15 different photographers, variously framed and matted, and hung in a single room gallery space with a main dividing wall. The prints were made between 1979 and 2010, using multiple processes (gelatin silver, chromogenic etc.). (Installation shots at right.)

The following photographers have been included in the exhibit, with the number of images on view in parentheses:

Gretchen Bender (1)

James Casebere (1)

Moyra Davey (1 grid of 100)

Philip-Lorca diCorcia (4)

Robert Gober (2)

Katy Grannan (3)

Hans Haacke (1 diptych)

An-My Lê (1 group of 5)

Curtis Mann (1)

Trevor Paglen (1)

Adrian Piper (1 triptych)

Laurie Simmons (1)

Wolfgang Tillmans (5)

Jeff Wall (1, distractingly large given the narrowness of the space by the way)

Christopher Williams (1)

Comments/Context: If you’ve spent some time trolling through the contemporary photography galleries in New York in the past couple of years, the odds are you’ve run across many of the works on display in this new group show of contemporary photography at the Met. Roughly half the works in the exhibit are recent acquisitions (look for the little blue logos on the wall labels), so it’s a terrific chance to try to extrapolate how the curators and the members of the Photography committee are approaching the addition of new work to the permanent collection.

This particular installation puts these photographs in the specific context of cultural interchange, and makes an argument for a pattern of contemporary work that is addressing and responding to the social, economic, and political environment that surrounds us, either as direct commentary or as indirect undercurrents and glimpses of prevailing mood and emotion. It then goes on to dig additional images out of storage from the 1980s and 1990s that fit this overall thematic construct, connecting the dots between different time periods and commonalities of upheaval or uncertainty in society at large.

My analytical brain can think of three different ways this show might have come to pass:

1.) The Met identified (“top-down”) a certain type of photography to look for or that it was interested in (cultural response), and then went out and systematically acquired works that fit those specifications

2.) The Met acquired recent works (of all kinds) that it thought were important and discovered later (“bottom-up”) that a real and identifiable pattern was occurring in part of the contemporary artistic environment; the curators followed that trail and then created a show that highlighted those discoveries and placed them in context

3.) The Met acquired recent works (of all kinds) that it thought were important and then shoehorned some of them into a theme so that it could find a rational way to display them and tie them into other existing holdings

While we’ll probably never know which of three it actually was (unless one of the principals involved weighs in with an answer), I think the theme of art as a reflection of the issues of the times seems like an awfully broad and all-encompassing umbrella under which to stand; apart from abstract, inward-looking, or highly conceptual work, almost anything else might logically fit into such a framework. As such, this show lacked the tightness of vision I’d like to see in a group show; yes, all the pieces fit into the right general bucket, but the selection and juxtaposition of images (walls of economic hardship, subtleties of military might, economic satire, snippets of racism, sexism etc.) wasn’t as hard hitting or consistent as I would have expected it to be if you were really trying to make a powerful point about the engagement of contemporary art photographers in current events; the thread was there to be sure, but it was just too diffuse to really grab my attention.

So rather than drawing any crisp conclusions about the overall trends in contemporary photography, I came away ticking down a checklist: Grannan, Casebere, Lê, Mann, Davey, Tillmans, all high-quality work that was recently (or still is) in local galleries, now part of the prestigious permanent collection of the Met. Let’s agree that these are all solid choices. But still, for the purposes of collection building (a topic in which I have infinite interest), it’s intriguing to think about what drew the curators and accessions committee members to these particular works. Why these photographers and not others? Why these specific images and not others from the same project or series (especially for an artist like Tillmans)? What long-term historical significance did they ascribe to these photographs? What holes were they trying to fill? How did they convince each other that these were the ones that money should be spent on? The answers of course are unknown, but thoroughly fun for an afternoon of speculation.

Collector’s POV: Given this is a museum show, there are obviously no posted prices for the works on display. That said, given that many of these photographs have recently been in local NY gallery shows, an intrepid collector could search through the archive here for the relevant reviews and likely piece together a decently current price list for roughly half of the prints in the exhibit.

My favorite work in the show was Moyra Davey’s Copperhead Grid, 1990/2009; it’s on the right in the bottom installation shot. While I have seen variations on these Davey copperheads before (in different sizes), I continue to be enthralled by their tactile surfaces. Chemical residues of orange and green swirl across the profile of Abraham Lincoln, the coins sometimes scratched and covered to the point that his head is almost indecipherable. Her subtle commentary about the insignificance of the penny, the deterioration of money, and the loss of meaning in the financial system are all wound together into a memorable set of eroded symbols.

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Read more about: Adrian Piper, An-My Lê, Christopher Williams, Curtis Mann, Gretchen Bender, Hans Haacke, James Casebere, Jeff Wall, Katy Grannan, Laurie Simmons, Moyra Davey, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Robert Gober, Trevor Paglen, Wolfgang Tillmans, Metropolitan Museum of Art

One comment

  1. Decorno /

    This blog is ESSENTIAL. Thank you for taking the time to do this work. I live in Seattle and this helps me stay on top of what I am missing in NY.

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